Improving instruction for English-language learners

iStock_000014442615XSmallThe transition from specialized bilingual programs to classes taught entirely in English is very difficult for students and their teachers. When students make this transition — usually in the upper elementary grades — their classroom participation and achievement often decline, and special-education referrals increase.

Russell Gersten, Eugene Research Institute, writes that many educators lack the professional knowledge to make effective modifications in English-language instruction comprehensible yet cognitively demanding for English-language learners.

In 1991, Gersten and colleagues began a large-scale research project to document the instructional problems faced by these second-language learners making the transition to regular classes. Researchers observed language-arts and reading instruction in 19 fourth- through sixth-grade classrooms in a large urban school district in California.

Teachers were interviewed about practices they found productive or ineffective. In the majority of these classrooms, mostly Spanish-speaking students were taught by monolingual European-American teachers. Gersten reports that researchers observed confusion and despair in school personnel at all levels.

These educators were aware that appropriate instruction for this group of students was one of the biggest problems facing the district, and that many of the teachers were overwhelmed.

In the current study, Gersten’s team focused on four upper-elementary teachers in three large, low-income K-6 schools. None had any formal training in teaching English-language learners.

A varied team of researchers experienced with English-language learners observed each teacher’s language-arts classes for an average of 36 hours, recording lessons and then interpreting what they had seen. Researchers were looking for: challenge, involvement and success of students; scaffolding, mediation and feedback by teachers; and teacher respect for cultural diversity.

In addition, the four teachers were formally interviewed at length on two occasions and informal discussions took place after observations and during class breaks. Teachers were asked to describe their background, training and experience and to discuss issues related to literacy instruction for English-language learners. They were also asked about district guidelines and policies, sources of support, and conflicts that arose with other staff members and within themselves. They were asked to describe their goals in teaching these students and to assess how successful they felt their current instructional strategies were.

Task overwhelms teachers

As researchers reflected on two years of observations, they saw the overwhelming task confronting these teachers. Their challenge was to develop a viable language-arts curriculum for English-language learners from a selection of high-quality children’s literature.

The unfocused and unstructured language-arts curriculum in the district provided few guidelines for teaching essential language skills and no effective techniques for vocabulary development.

Teachers tended to move back and forth unpredictably between teaching correct language usage and encouraging the oral and written expression of ideas. When trying to improve students’ grammatical skills, they usually worked with simple, non-challenging material. They found themselves avoiding potentially rich children’s literature because of their students’ lack of facility with the language.

These teachers described a sense of distance between themselves and their students that inhibited discussion. They felt pressure to improve students’ language skills because they were aware how far behind their students were in reading and writing, and this led to an emphasis on isolated skills rather than more complex literature-based activities.

Helping teachers enrich language-arts instruction for English-language learners

Gersten and colleagues argue that solutions for enhancing education for culturally diverse students must address the problems teachers face every day in their classrooms. Effective teacher development grows out of teachers’ own problems — their explicitly stated instructional concerns.

The four teachers in this study wanted to reduce their isolation from other professionals. The idea of a study group appealed to them — teachers informally discussing research, drawing implications for their own teaching and then analyzing their experiences as they implemented new practices. These teachers also expressed a desire for cultural development. They wanted help breaking down the barriers between themselves and their students.

Teachers consistently and urgently requested procedures and strategies for providing lessons that made sense to their students. Specifically they wanted to learn how to:

  • systematically develop written and oral English-language competence
  • build vocabulary
  • design lessons in literature that engage students
  • foster analysis and comprehension when students’ language skills are weak

They wanted to know what works with these students. Some asked to be observed in their teaching and provided with suggestions, or to have the opportunity to observe an experienced, effective teacher of English-language learners.

Gersten states that while lessons in grammar and spelling should not be the core of language-arts instruction, these students need to learn strategies to decide when Spanish spelling and rules can be used and when they are not appropriate in English. In addition, Gersten says, educators must address the teaching of literary analysis and expressive writing.

There is research that reveals promising practices such as cognitive strategy instruction for second-language learners; instructional methods for promoting transfer of knowledge; and strategies for teaching expressive writing through a process approach that’s been successful with native English speakers.

Implementing new strategies requires intensive effort but Gersten believes that, given knowledgeable support and curriculum guides to assist them, teachers would be very motivated to learn how to use these strategies.

Gersten agrees, in addition, that it is essential for teachers to get to know their students. Expert teachers of English-language learners are able to organize cooperative groups, writers’ and readers’ workshops, and other activities that allow them to get to know their students as people and to engage in both intellectual and interpersonal conversations.

Gersten concludes that it is essential for teachers to be able to spend a portion of each day working with a small group of three to five students. Teachers could hear their students read, see them write and listen to them talk about their experiences. As they got to know them as individuals, teachers would become more comfortable with their students, and students should become more engaged in their classwork.

“Lost Opportunities: Challenges Confronting Four Teachers of English-Language Learners” The Elementary School Journal, Volume 100, Number 1, September 1999 pp. 37-56.

Published in ERN November 1999 Volume 12 Number 8

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